December 2012, and a call came offering a rare interview with Victor Valdes the following day in Barcelona. The goalkeeper promised time, which can make a huge difference to an interview. The player can talk and go into depth on subjects, step out of cliché mode and give some thought to answers.
Having turned a quick interview into a three hour talk with the author of the tragic Robert Enke book (Valdes had been at Camp Nou with Enke), Valdes was more than capable of the cerebral response.
High profile people still have to watch what they say, though. They can offer a balanced opinion on someone, with three positive sentences and one less than positive one. Elements of the media will take the negative one and spin it into a salacious headline. Thus, a player being described as needing to work harder will be called lazy. That’s why so many players are reluctant interviewees.
So it was surprising, twenty minutes in, when Valdes said that he was going to leave Barcelona. Not that he was considering leaving Barcelona, but that he would definitely, without doubt, be leaving Barcelona. Naturally, I asked him why.
“It’s hard to imagine wearing another shirt, but I’ve been doing this 11 years,” he said. “One year as Barcelona keeper is like three years at another team. The pressure is immense.”
It was one of those moments where you nod along, but your brain doesn’t quite register what it’s being told. Valdes expanded his thoughts.
“When you play as a goalkeeper at Barcelona you have to take more risks than at other clubs,” declared Valdes, then 30, sitting in a room at the Catalans’ training ground. “The team are so attacking and the goalkeeper has to be part of that. Guardiola always told me that I should participate in the team’s play, he helped me interpret football. There were times that I played like a libero under him. I’ve always taken risks, it makes me the goalkeeper I am.”
Ok, but was that enough to make one leave your home city? Your beautiful house which looks like an ocean-going liner, overlooking the Med? Your family and young son? Your mates? A brilliant team?
The pressure was enough to make Guardiola leave, but a goalkeeper behind Lionel Messi and the most attack-minded players in the world? Isn’t being Barcelona’s goalkeeper one of the best jobs in football?
On reflection, Valdes may think so. He turns 32 on Tuesday, he’s still in his prime, but he wants to see if the grass is greener, wants a new challenge, to experience life in a different country.
Barça’s players have tried to persuade him to stay, Sporting director Andoni Zubizarretta too. All failed. Barça would make him one of the best three best paid ’keepers in world football, but they wouldn’t offer him the potentially huge (tax free) signing on fee he’ll get at a Monaco. That’s if he goes to Monaco.
Players who’ve only played at one club complain that incoming players are often far better remunerated than them. This may have been true for Valdes in the past, but not now. He’s also more appreciated now too, in part because he’s a far better goalkeeper than five years ago, calmer, with better positioning. He’s better on crosses as well.
Six weeks after our interview, Valdes revealed his departure news to the Catalan press. The reaction from fans and selected media was not positive. They thought he was playing his club for a better contract. He wasn’t. The boos eventually subsided and he’s been treated well since, though it kicked off again when our interview was eventually published. Critics thought he was going back to agitate for more money. He wasn’t. The timing could have been better.
Valdes will leave Barcelona on 30th June. Asked about his future this week, he said:
“All team-mates have tried to convince me to stay. This is a group of friends here. It’s a pity to lose friends, but that’s life.
“Next club? Doesn’t only depend on me, but also on the team I’ll go to and which competitions they’ll play. We shouldn’t talk about it now.”
He’ll leave a hero.
“He’s the greatest goalkeeper in Barcelona’s history,” says Pepe Reina. “He’s the number one,” purred Andres Iniesta somewhat opaquely of the goalkeeper who has played 521 games for Barça, 376 in the league. He’s won every trophy there is to win, including five Zamoras, the award given to the top flight ’keeper in Spain’s top flight who concedes the fewest goals.
Accepting that Valdes’ departure is imminent, Barça have looked for alternatives. Deputy Pinto, 37, is too old and not considered first choice quality. Barça will decide if they’re to bring in a new second choice ’keeper or keep Pinto, but it’s their first choice which is most important.
The Catalans have identified Borussia Monchengladbach’s Ter Stegen, 21. He’s told his club that he won’t renew his contract, meaning he’ll have no buy out clause. It could be the ideal signing for Barça, who won’t receive a fee for Valdes.
After missing a month with a calf injury, Valdes retuned to Barça’s first team for Sunday’s 4-0 win against Elche, his eighth clean sheet in 14 matches. More applause, more appreciation, just as he’ll get tonight, though it’s likely Pinto will start for Barca’s Copa del Rey game against Getafe.
And having been declared fit after eight weeks out himself, Lionel Messi is expected to return and get some valuable minutes ahead of the biggest club game in Europe so far this season. That’s Atletico Madrid v Barcelona on Saturday, with both teams joint leaders on 49 points. Barça will be better for Messi and Valdes in their team, but they’re counting down the days until the latter leaves.
“I will always come back here, but I have this wonderful job which allows me to travel,” he said. “And I want to travel.”
Has gloves, will travel. A mouth-watering prospect for Europe’s biggest clubs.
Andy Mitten (on Twitter: @AndyMitten)